Never Let Me Down: 1987 vs. 2018

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Never Let Me Down has been remixed and remade. Well, thank the lord for the David Bowie box sets. Since 2015, David Bowie’s music, with the exception of his 1967 self titled album, has been re-released in excellent box sets. So far, we’ve had four, and this latest one is the most interesting.

1987’s Never Let me Down was not a good album. David Bowie’s return to art rock and guitar-driven music after two albums of mainstream pop is often considered a nadir of Bowie’s wilderness years. Originally produced by David Richards; who produced Queen’s later albums, it was a bombastic, badly produced mess of an album. Bowie would state after the fact that he believed there were a lot of good songs on that album that was mistreated.

Never Let Me Down was critically panned, and caused Bowie to take a 5-year gap from releasing new material under his own name. In 2007, a producer called Mario McNulty reproduced a song from that album for Bowie’s 2008 compilation album ‘iSelect’. So enamoured with the remix, Bowie said that McNulty should just redo the album. And so he did.

This Track by Track review gives me a unique opportunity to compare two versions of an album, and an album that was not viewed in a good light. For this review, I will be reviewing the original and the 2018 remix album and sharing my thoughts on both mixes. 

Day-In Day-Out

When you listen to both the original and the 2018 version, there really are not that many differences in the musical composition. Musically, both compositions are similar, though with the 2018 version the production is a lot more modern. My vote would have to go to the remix version as I feel the production on the ’87 mix is a bit schizophrenic, and inconsistent. As a song on its own, I must admit, I feel that there is a bit of a tonal error. It’s a song about being homeless, yet its musically uptempo and in a major chord. It’s a fun throwaway song, but I feel that the message is lost in how it sounds.

Time will Crawl

This song was one of David Bowie’s favourites in his entire career, and was the song that was remixed for iSelect by Mario McNulty in 2007. You can automatically hear the difference between both the original and the remix in the opening. One starts off with a hit and run synth drum solo, and 80’s synth. The remix is definitely stripped back, opening with a simple guitar riff. I think this is a case of preference, as I like both. The cheesy 80’s synth is good in its own right, but the remix adds real string instruments and horns. It’s down to preference. Both versions work very well.

Beat of your Drum

This song is creepy. It’s basically about jailbait, and that’s all I need to say. It is David Bowie at peak Gary Glitter. And I think the seediness of it makes the original mix better than the remix, which just sounds too classy. The strings on the remix and the general production just take away from that seediness. That being said, this does sound like an early Bowie song. Reminds me of All the Madmen from The Man Who Sold The World. I like the song, but it is seedy. I’d have stripped it back more for the remix.

Never Let Me Down

The title track of the album, and a lovely tribute to David Bowie’s assistant, 
Coco Schwab. Complete with harmonica and a rustic charm, the 2018 remix just clinches the win. Compared to the seediness of the previous track, this is pure wholesomeness. Despite my love of the 2018 version, the 1987 version is not too overly produced, and is a good listen as well. This song does sound like a latter day Bowie song, like something from The Next Day. A charming listen, it is a good song.

Zeroes

The first song I listened to from this project, as I bought the 7′ Picture Disc, and Zeroes is the pinnacle of the abuse that the 1987 release suffered. It is probably the most overly produced song on the album. By contrast, the 2018 remix just sounds more natural, with acoustic guitar, a sitar that isn’t fighting for attention against the wall of sound, and real drums too. Zeroes is one of the best songs on the remix album, and is also a highlight of David Bowie’s music in general. If I redid A Very Bowie Christmas, I’d probably have made this my choice, had this been the album released in 1987.

Glass Spider

From one of the best songs to one of the worst. Glass Spider is a ponderous and pseudo-deep song that its inclusion on the remix album baffles me. It just makes no sense, compared to the other songs in the album. Many of the other songs are issue-led and are commentaries on various issues. This song just feels really out of place, on both albums. For the remix, the synth arrangement has been completely replaced with something that sounds like an outtake from Blackstar or 1. Outside. It adds a lot of atmospheric darkness and a much slower tempo to the original, which was sorely lacking in the original.

I still contend, however, that the original and the remix could have been excised. It makes no real sense. Point goes to the remix, however.

Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)

Another mess, though this is purely production. The tempo is too quick for the rhythm, at least to my ears. The remix slows it just enough for the rhythm of the singing to be complimented, rather than competed with. According to McNulty in interviews, the production of the original was a mess, and was the hardest song to reimagine. He did an alright job and took out Mickey Rourke’s bridge rap, replacing it with Laurie Anderson. Her voice suits the tone of the song a lot better than Mickey Rourke. It is one of the more extensively remixed songs, and it works a lot better.

New York’s in Love

On my initial listen to the 1987 version, it sounded like something Duran Duran would sing, and I had to do a double take. It’s very pop rock, and as someone who likes 80’s music, I like the sound of this track. For the 2018 remix, the 80’s Duran Duran sound has been taken out in favour of a straight-laced rock song. The backing vocals are also largely absent in the remix. Again, this is down to preference for me, as I like both versions. I think that the remix is more true to what Bowie intended to do in the album, however.

87 and Cry

Again, the remix for 87 and Cry eschews the dated 80’s sounds of the original, which has an intro that sounds strangely like a Sega Megadrive game soundtrack, in favour of a straight-laced rock song. I think that makes the song better. Whereas New York’s In Love and Never Let Me Down are strong songs on both albums, 87 and Cry is a stronger song on the remix album. I think the instrumentation works better with the theme of the song, being about Thatcher’s Britain, which was not a fun time for a lot of people. 

Too Dizzy 


Inconspicuous in its absence is Too Dizzy, a song which was not remixed, because it has essentially been wiped from the Bowie catalogue. Bowie thought this song was so bad for this album, he retroactively removed it from subsequent album re-releases. Why is this song not on Never Let Me Down? Simply because it was bad. It was meant to be a pastiche of 50’s music, which was something that they did a lot in the 1980’s. It was a product of its time, and it shows. If you have a copy of the original album with that song then you do own a piece of history, albeit a piece that has been actively wiped from the album. Oh well, at least I have it. Yay me.

Bang Bang

The last track on both albums, a cover of Iggy Pop (Covers of Iggy Pop appearing on all of Bowie’s 80’s albums, bar Scary Monsters), Bang Bang. I’ve never listened to the Iggy Pop version, so I cannot compare that to these. All I know is that it is very much a whimper, rather than a bang. I must admit, that I don’t like this song, on either version of the album. I think it works better as an 80’s track, rather than the remix, it strikes me as a Beat of Your Drum style situation. I don’t think the violins add much to it. A lot of the energy is lost in the remix, in my opinion.

Conclusions

Never Let Me Down really isn’t a good album, but does not deserve hate. The songs, as songs, have good ideas, but just are let down by poor production, no consistency, and a loss of the initial vision. Never Let Me Down should always have been tackled as a minimalist rock album. Never Let Me Down 2018 fixes a lot of issues, but does create some new ones as well. The songs are much more consistent in quality, and are stripped down, but a few songs lose out, particularly Beat of your Drum & 87 and Cry.

That being said, I don’t think the reimagining was made to prove that someone else could make a better album, I think that it is something that people need to reexamine, and that is the purpose of such a massive remix. I like Never Let Me Down 2018, and I think you will like it too.

RELATED POSTS

A Song Review: Zeroes

A Very Bowie Christmas: Dec 17th

Track By Track: No Plan EP 

Track By Track: Blackstar

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Ben

Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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